Should we study a foreign language to speak like native speakers?


Pubblicato da Alessandro

How many times have we come across people studying a foreign language voicing their desire to sound more native speaker-like? How often have we found ourselves confessing the same ambition for attaining such longed-after standard? Not to mention the galaxy of videos on the internet purporting to be teaching you the ultimate tricks, tips or secrets to sound more like a native.

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Long story short: it seems that when it comes to language learning, there’s nothing more embedded than the belief that the way natives speak should be our ultimate benchmark against which assessing the progress of our learning path. In other terms: the closer you are to a native speaker the more proficient you are said to be in your target language.

But does the argument hold water?

Much as common sense as this principle may appear to most of the people, this statement, if not qualified at least, does not withstand critical scrutiny. The least we can say, indeed, is that without further characterization, it sounds irredeemably vague if not outright false.

First of all, what does a native speaker sound like?

Take Italian. What should be the benchmark for native Italian speaking? It is well known that Italian is a literary standard developed from a strain of vulgar, namely, Florentine; more precisely, two authors were uplifted as paragons of proper Italian language style: Petrarca for poetry and Boccaccio for prose.

Should we all speak like them? We would sound ludicrous and laughable. Then, one could argue that we should all conform to so-called standard Italian, characterised by such enunciation as not to make possible to argue where the speaker comes from.

This form of Italian is virtually spoken only by dubbers, some actors and maybe journalists (though, in my experience, it's becoming rarer and rarer to see anchor men speak in a perfect accent-less standard Italian). It would be unreasonable to demand of foreign students to master a non-regional dialect, a variety of Italian that the vast majority of locals fall short of speaking, except for a very restricted class of professionals.

The truth is that the galaxy of dialects existing across our peninsula affects the Italian we speak to such an extent that the way a Milanese talks may sound almost another language when compared with the way a Neapolitan speaks, at least to non-native hears.

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The picture does not change when we turn to the English language. Of course, there exists a standard English which is surely more widely spoken than what standard Italian happens to be in Italy; furthermore, standard British English is charged with socio-economic implications about the speaker that do not apply in Italy, not to the same extent at least.

But even in the UK the days when only perfect RP (received pronunciation) English was acceptable from a respectable member of society are well over. You can find anchor men and anchor women speaking with well-recognizable local accents even in the most iconic and traditional news channels (as long as this does not affect intelligibility, it goes without saying).

By the way, even within the domain of so-called RP English there are ambiguities: you would say that upper-class people like Boris Johnson or Queen Elizabeth epitomise RP English better than anyone else, but that would be wrong: the English they speak is now mostly considered an old-fashioned strand of standard British English.

It seems to me that there is no immediate reason why you should decide to sound like a Milanese rather than a Neapolitan, or like a south-east Englishmen rather than a Londoner, a Geordie, or a Scottish.

But there is more.

Not only does setting native speaking as a benchmark give rise to issues as to how accurately to identify such benchmark, without falling for discriminations or perpetuating socio-economic inequalities, but also it raises problems about one obvious but nonetheless often overlooked remark: natives are often far from speaking flawlessly.

You can run this short experiment on your own. Take the last conversation you had with a friend of yours in your native language and check how many mistakes you have committed. Be scrupulous, fastidious if it need be. The chances are that you have recorded at least few mistakes. But my guess is that the vast majority of people commit more than a few, at least if my experience with my countrymen is anything to go by.

This remark points to something else: “native speaker” is a label which doesn’t say much about the educational background of the model. When we are talking about a native speaker, are we having in mind an average educated man or woman, or someone with a university degree, maybe even a PhD?

Che lingua stai imparando?

Are we thinking about someone living in an urban area or in a rural one (of course, the distinction between urban and rural people is not taken to overlap, not even partially, with the one between the literate and the illiterate; nonetheless, it signifies differences in language which cannot be ignored)?

Take a C1 ESOL speaker. This person will arguably speak a very good English, to a degree of proficiency which may be, in many respects, higher than the average native-speaker’s. Indeed, in terms of vocabulary for example and some specific language skills, such as writing, it may be head and shoulders above the less educated layers of the population.

And yet, except for the case where they had spent decades among locals, everyone could tell that such person is no native speaker. The same would apply to the case of a C2 user; actually, in this case the paradox would even be more striking.

This suggests that the difference between natives and non-natives is not entirely reduceable to the merely quantitative spectrum more proficient – less proficient. Things are more blurred, more complicated than that.

But of course, all this quibble did not answer the question. When learning a foreign language, should you strive to speak like a native? And if the answer is so, what criteria should lead us when setting our benchmark?

Well, I will try to answer this question another time, so... stay tuned!


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